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People v. Estrada

Supreme Court of California

July 24, 2017

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
MARIO R. ESTRADA, Defendant and Appellant.

         

         Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. GA025008, Ct.App. 2/8 B260573William C. Ryan Judge

          Richard B. Lennon and Suzan E. Hier, under appointments by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

          Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Assistant Attorney General, Margaret E. Maxwell, Noah P. Hill, Louis W. Karlin and Nathan Guttman, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          Cuéllar, J.

         Under the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012, certain inmates may file a “recall” petition to reduce their punishment for third-strike sentences imposed on them for offenses that are neither serious nor violent felonies. (Pen. Code § 1170.126, subds. (b), (e).)[1] When a court evaluates a petition to recall such a sentence, may it find an inmate ineligible for relief because certain facts underlying a previously dismissed count show the inmate was “armed with a firearm or deadly weapon” during the commission of the third strike offense? (See §§ 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C)(iii), 1170.126, subd. (e)(2).) The trial court in this case relied on preliminary hearing testimony to find that Mario Estrada was indeed armed during the commission of his 1996 theft offense. The court did so notwithstanding the dismissal - pursuant to Estrada's plea agreement - of a robbery count and a firearm use allegation connected to the same incident. What we hold is that a trial court may deny resentencing under the Act on the basis of facts underlying previously dismissed counts. Because the trial court denied recall of Estrada's sentence in a manner consistent with this rule, the appellate court properly affirmed the trial court - and we now affirm that judgment.

         I.

         In 1996, defendant Mario Estrada pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft from a person under section 487, subdivision (c). Under a plea agreement, the prosecution dismissed a firearm use allegation (former § 12022.5, subd. (a)) related to the count of conviction, and robbery (§ 211), burglary (§ 459) and false imprisonment by violence (§ 236) counts based on the same incident that led to the conviction. The prosecution also dismissed several additional counts based on unrelated conduct alleged to have occurred on other dates. Estrada further admitted to two prior convictions qualifying as strikes under the “Three Strikes” law, [2] and the trial court sentenced him to an indeterminate term of 25 years to life.

         Sixteen years later, the electorate approved Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (Proposition 36, or the Act). Among other reforms, the Act amended the Penal Code to permit recall of sentence for some inmates sentenced for third strike offenses that were neither serious nor violent felonies. (§ 1170.126.) After approval of the Act, Estrada petitioned to recall his sentence. The trial court denied the petition on the basis of its factual finding that Estrada was armed with a firearm during the commission of his 1996 theft offense -- a finding that renders a petitioner ineligible for resentencing under Proposition 36. (See §§ 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C)(iii), 1170.126, subd. (e)(2).) In making this finding, the trial court reviewed the transcript of the 1996 preliminary hearing held before Estrada pleaded guilty. During that preliminary hearing, a Radio Shack employee testified that Estrada entered the store on April 9, 1995, and pulled out a small handgun. The employee also testified that Estrada demanded the money in the register and then, after he received the money, ordered the employee to the store's back room. Estrada then left the store.[3] Based on this testimony, the trial court denied resentencing, concluding that it was “more likely than not” that Estrada was armed during the commission of the offense.

         Estrada appealed. The trial court, Estrada contended, impermissibly based its finding of ineligibility for resentencing on conduct tied to the robbery count and firearm use allegation, which were dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement. The Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of the petition, and we granted Estrada's petition for review.

         II.

         Prior to the approval of Proposition 36, the Three Strikes law imposed a prison term of 25 years to life on a defendant for a felony conviction, even if it was not a serious or violent felony, where the defendant had two or more prior convictions for serious or violent felonies. (Former § 1170.12, subds. (b), (c)(2)(A).) Following enactment of Proposition 36, defendants are now subject to a lesser sentence when they have two or more prior strikes and are convicted of a felony that is neither serious nor violent, unless an exception applies. (People v. Johnson (2015) 61 Cal.4th 674, 681 (Johnson); see also § 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C) [setting forth various exceptions].) One such exception is if, “[d]uring the commission of the current offense, the defendant used a firearm, was armed with a firearm or deadly weapon, or intended to cause great bodily injury to another person.” (§ 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C)(iii).)

         The Act applies both prospectively and to defendants already sentenced under the pre-reform version of the Three Strikes law. A defendant with two prior strikes convicted of a nonserious, nonviolent felony cannot be sentenced to a third strike term unless the prosecution “pleads and proves” that one of the Act's exceptions applies. (§ 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C).) For those sentenced under the scheme previously in force, the Act establishes procedures for convicted individuals to seek resentencing in accordance with the new sentencing rules. (§ 1170.126.) The procedures call for two determinations. First, an inmate must be eligible for resentencing. (§ 1170.126, subd. (e)(2).) An inmate is eligible for resentencing if his or her current sentence was not imposed for a violent or serious felony and was not imposed for any of the offenses described in clauses (i) to (iv) of section 1170.12, subdivision (c)(2)(C). (§ 1170.126, subd. (e)(2).) Those clauses describe certain kinds of criminal conduct, including the use of a firearm during the commission of the offense. Second, an inmate must be suitable for resentencing. Even if eligible, a defendant is unsuitable for resentencing if “the court, in its discretion, determines that resentencing the petitioner would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” (§ 1170.126, subd. (f).) If an inmate is found both eligible and suitable, the inmate's third strike sentence is recalled, and the inmate is resentenced to a second-strike sentence. (Ibid.; § 1170.12, subd. (c)(1).)

         Estrada was among the defendants who received a third-strike sentence, after pleading guilty to one count of grand theft from a person in 1996. The Penal Code defines theft as “feloniously steal[ing], tak[ing], carry[ing], lead[ing], or driv[ing] away the personal property of another.” (§ 484, subd. (a).) The code also defines grand theft from a person as theft “[w]hen the property is taken from the person of another.” (§ 487, subd. (c).) By pleading guilty, Estrada admitted to feloniously stealing the personal property of another, from the person of another. Whatever else Estrada's admission of guilt established, however, it did not by itself establish that Estrada was “armed with a firearm or deadly weapon.” (§ 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C)(iii).) But the trial court concluded that Estrada was “armed with a firearm or deadly weapon” during the commission of the offense. (Ibid.; see also1170.126, subd. (e)(2).) To make this determination, the court considered more than just the facts established by Estrada's guilty plea. It also considered transcripts of Estrada's preliminary ...


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